Posted tagged ‘honorary degrees’

Protecting our honour

September 10, 2018

I’m about to make up a number here, but just work with me. Across the world in 2017, some 200,000 people were awarded honorary doctorates. A significant proportion these awards were handed to eminent academics, often at or near retirement, whose work was of real intellectual significance and produced wider benefits. Some were awarded to prominent people who showed their support for higher education activities and values. Some… – well some, you just don’t know why they got them.

I’m sure that it is not the most urgent issue to address in today’s global higher education, but I confess that, as a university head for the past 18 years, I was never absolutely sure how to handle honorary degrees. When I became President of Dublin City University I introduced a moratorium, and for the first three years of my tenure we awarded none at all. Then we carefully identified a small number of people with whose work and achievements we wanted to identify as a university, but we continued to do this sparingly and at most ceremonies there were no honorary conferrings.

I continued this approach in Robert Gordon University (and in fact had to deal with one honorary degree awarded before my time which we felt we had to revoke). While I feel really proud of  the honorary doctorates that were conferred in my time in both universities, I have never been quite sure whether my approach was right or wrong. It just seemed to me that the currency of these awards was increasingly debased across higher education because there were so many of them. I am absolutely not against recognising achievements, values and principles, and honorary degrees are a way of celebrating exceptional merit. This year for example, on International Women’s Day, RGU conferred honorary doctorates on three outstanding women, with very different backgrounds and profiles; it was a wonderful occasion.

But then again, is it right that a number of celebrities gather up a whole collection of awards that seem to recognise their fame rather than any merit? And still, some of these celebrities have done remarkable things to help others and uphold intellectual values. So what really is the correct approach?

I have no answer really, but would urge universities to make these awards signify something that supports and enhances the purposes and values of the institution, and to do it not so frequently as to obscure the special merit of each honour.


Too many doctors in the house?

March 11, 2009

Last year – in 2008 – Dublin City University (DCU) awarded two honorary doctorates, both at the same ceremony. On this occasion the awards were given to Mrs Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, and to Dr Martin McAleese; they were intended to mark the contribution of both to Ireland’s culture and education, and more particularly also to their vital role in promoting and supporting peace in Northern Ireland. They both spoke movingly at the ceremony about the ideals of scholarship, and of tolerance and peace. And I believe we were able to present this as a very special occasion, not least because theirs were the first honorary degrees DCU had awarded for a while, and because no others were awarded that year. During the same year, perhaps some 45 or so honorary doctorates were awarded in other universities in the state. Actually I am guessing, it may have been more.

In fact it has been DCU’s policy since I became President in 2000 to award honorary doctorates sparingly, and to avoid awarding them to individuals whose main claim was their celebrity status. Over these eight years we have awarded a total of eight honorary degrees (including President and Dr McAleese); during four of those years we awarded none at all. This is in large part due to my belief that these distinctions lose their meaning if too many are handed out, and in particular if it becomes hard to see on what basis the awards are made. In DCU we have tried to ensure hat the recipients have made important contributions to education or scholarship, or given strong support to education and its values, or have made important community contributions. The first (and in that year only) award made in my time as President was in 2002 when we awarded an honorary doctorate to Father Peter McVerry, for his work with homeless and disadvantaged people in Ballymun.

Ireland does not have an honours system. Whether such a system might be a good or a bad thing can be debated, but what seems to me to be wrong is to expect universities to perform that role. Those who do research for a PhD are expected to put in years of hard work in a very demanding setting to get their doctorates, and to produce original work that will make a difference to the advancement of knowledge. We should expect honorary doctorates to mark similar long term efforts and dedication.

We are extremely proud of all our honorary graduates, and I feel we can say that in each case we were marking something very special, and we did so in a way that made the awards stand out. I am not suggesting that any other university has done anything improper, but maybe the time has come to look again at what message  higher education institutions expect to transmit with these degrees. And maybe it would be better if, across the whole system, fewer were handed out.